Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

'Umefe: Chiefly Tables

The term 'umefe refers to the short-legged table used at meals by a chief; it also symbolizes a chief. In olden days 'umefe were carved from the trunks of hefau trees (Calophyllum inophyllum, a hard wood), but today they are made from wooden planks to which legs are nailed. 'Umefe are approximately 10-12 inches high; chiefs sit cross-legged in front of them and are served by young women who sit across the table facing them.[7]

Each chief has his own 'umefe, which stands for his title. Prior to the installation ceremony at which a title is conferred, a majau (craftsman) makes a new 'umefe for the man to be inducted. Before the feast begins, the table is placed face down in front of the inductee. When he is about to have his meal, the serving girl turns up the 'umefe (hül 'umefe), thus signifying his entitlement. The district chief officiates over this ceremony of hül 'umefe or hül asa.[8] The päega prepared for the occasion is presented to the district chief after the feast as a reward. The preparation for the ceremony of a subchief is the same as for the installation of a district chief (jöl niu), but on a smaller scale, and the mafua announces the feast as huliag asa. If a man gives up his title or dies, a päega and koua must be taken to the district chief, and his 'umefe is considered to be 'turned down' (hofak'akiag 'umefe). All subchiefs are known as 'umefe because they are expected to eat off 'umefe at ceremonies.

The use of 'umefe is not confined to chiefs alone, however. Any prominent visitor can eat off an 'umefe, and each family has at least one to use at family functions. Furthermore, 'umefe are not sacred objects in themselves, like apei, but are only symbolically relevant at feasts, where they signify places of honour. Between ceremonial occasions, people use 'umefe for a variety of functions and borrow them freely when occasions require enough tables to accommodate all distinguished visitors.

[7] The term 'umefe was applied to European dishes when they were introduced, including dishes, bowls, basins, jugs, cups, and dippers. It is also used for the collection plate at church. back to text
[8] hül 'umefe more literally means 'to turn over the table.' Similarly, either huliag asa (turning over the name) or huliag 'umefe (turning over the table) can be used to refer to the installation ceremony. back to text

To Tefui: Garlands